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Hands-on Test of the Sony Xperia Z on T-Mobile LTE

At CES 2013, which was over six months ago, a smartphone caught our eyes and captured our hearts enough for us to call it one of the best things we saw at the show back in January. That phone was the Sony Xperia Z, which at the time was one of the first handsets leading the way with the new high-end 1080p display resolution. It wasn't the only phone at CES that had a full HD screen, though. So what set the Xperia Z apart? Aside from some very elegant aesthetics, it was also waterproof.

T-Mobile today is making official its plans to carry the Sony Xperia Z starting July 17 for $99.99 down with 24 equal monthly payments of $20. Those who don't want to go through T-Mobile or just want it now can get it straight from Sony for $0 down and $25 a month for 24 months, or for $579.99 upfront starting today at Sony Store at any of its 38 U.S. locations or online. Both T-Mobile and Sony are offering a free Sony Wireless Bluetooth Speaker SRS-BTV5 with the Xperia Z for a limited time. Those who want the purple colored version will have to go to the Sony Store or order online from T-Mobile.com.

So, the Xperia Z is a new phone in U.S. carrier world, but it's actually been available internationally as an HSPA+ version for several months now. Today, the smartphone landscape is a little different. Back in January, there was no Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One. While those phones were unveiled after CES, both hit the North American market before the Xperia Z touched American soil (with carrier support).

Regardless, the Xperia Z was our very favorite earlier this year, and we've gone hands-on for a longer-term test to see if it's able to hang with the other full HD phones available now.

SpecsSony Xperia Z C6606
Size/weight5.47 x 2.79 x .31 in. / 5.15 oz.
Display5" 1080p HD Reality Display (1920 x 1080) powered by Mobile BRAVIA Engine 2, 443 ppi, 16 million colors, 500 cd brightness, OptiContrast panel, scratch-resistant durable tempered glass
Cameras13 MP, auto focus, Full 1080p HD video recording, Exmor RS for Mobile sensor, HDR for photo and video, noise reduction, Superior Auto, Burst mode, Sweep Panorama, 2 MP Full HD front camera with Exmor R for Mobile sensor
CPU1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro
RAM2GB
MemoryUp to 16GB, with microSD card expansion up to 32GB
Connectivity3.5 mm audio jack (CTIA), aGPS, Bluetooth (A2DP), DLNA Certified, HDMI with MHL support, NFC, Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, Screen Mirroring, Wi-Fi calling on T-Mobile, HD Voice
FrequenciesGSM (850,900, 1800, 1900 MHz); UMTS (Bands I, II, IV, V, VIII); LTE (Band IV)
Battery2330 mAh

Hands-on Impressions

Initial impressions didn't change; the Xperia Z is one very elegant phone. While the HTC One is still to be admired for its superlative craftsmanship, the Xperia Z exudes class with its angular design and glass front and back. Mind you, glass isn't the most durable material, but it's been a trend that even Google validated with its Nexus 4 (based off the equally glassy LG Optimus G), and it still feels smooth and great in hand.

One thing that furthers the classy design is the lack of exposed ports. As it is waterproof, the ports all have to hide behind covers that will keep the elements out. This gives the phone a very smooth look that's appreciated until you have to remove a cover to get to the micro USB port for charging. The only external extrusions from the otherwise smooth black slab are the power button and the volume rocker, and we're sure that the Sony designers would have gotten rid of those if at all practical. Other ports accessible, but always covered, are the microSD expansion slot, headphone jack and the SIM card tray.

Out of the box, the phone comes protected by a sticker label that clearly points out where all ports are because they aren't immediately obvious. A nice preventative measure so that customers won't run back to the store when they can't figure out where to plug the charger.

Dust and Water Resistant

The most unique feature that sets it apart from the other premium smartphones out on the market today is that it's dust and waterproof (IP55 and IP57). Actually, the correct term would be water-resistant, since it's not infinitely waterproof (even though the menus on the phone itself use the word waterproof). The advertised limit is submersion at a depth of 3 feet for 30 minutes. While that's nothing compared to a diver's watch, it's definitely more than what any normal person would want to do with a smartphone.

The most impressive demonstration is underwater video recording. The Xperia Z has been available in internationally for a few months now, and there have been countless examples on YouTube, but we wanted to make one of our own.

For practical matters, the water resistance is exceptionally comforting for those who like (or need) to use their phones outside in rainy weather. There were intense thundershowers in my city at no point did I feel that I had to put the phone away in fear of water damage. It was one of the biggest downpours in city history and I didn't hesitate to keep the phone out to reschedule plans with friends and to use the taxi hailing apps Hailo and Uber to find quick and dry mode of transport. For those who can never avoid the ever-present rain (hello, Pacific Northwest), then you can keep Google Maps out without fear wherever you have to go.

Performance

The variants of the Xperia Z that's been available up until now have been the C6602 and the C6603. The one that's selling today at Sony Stores across the country and via T-Mobile in a week is the C6606, which supports LTE in North America (Band IV). Testing the Xperia Z in the freshly launched LTE network in San Francisco yielded some speedy results.

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Speedtest in San Francisco

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Tested inside Moscone Center

Synthetic benchmarks of the Xperia Z measure just below that of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One due to its slower clock speed and chipset. It's powered by the same Adreno 320 GPU as the aforementioned phones and the same Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro that's in Google's Nexus 4. In practical use, it feels snappy and quick. In fact, Sony's lightweight customizations of Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean versus its competitors go a long way for performance. We're fans of stock Android, and Sony's practiced restraint. The Xperia Z has kept the on-screen navigation softkeys that were first introduced in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, while the HTC One has a confusing two-button setup, and Samsung GS4 carries on with its hardware home button tradition.

BenchmarkSony Xperia ZHTC OneSamsung Galaxy S4
Passmark Overall295033253391
Passmark CPU110291303514855
Passmark Disk1267081296623
Passmark Memory250829562394
Passmark 2D204722902515
Passmark 3D98411681127
Vellamo HTML5218224402106
3DMark Ice Storm103051137711561
3DMark Ice Storm Extreme603866336901
AnTuTu System207712397024523
AnTuTu Battery (100%-20%)402 (2:14)478 (2:40)506 (2:49)

Useful Android Customizations

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But on Stamina mode, 1d 18h

Despite having a 2330 mAh battery, heavy users will find themselves needing a bit of a top up charge before the day is over. Sony's answer to this is another custom Android feature called Battery Stamina mode, which essentially kills all background processes while the screen is off. Of course, that by itself would also prevent push notifications from coming in, so there's a whitelist where you can allow apps such as Gmail or Facebook to continue staying connected. Those who have a short whitelist will see more dramatic battery gains than those who like to leave everything turned on (and thus defeating the main purpose of the Stamina mode).

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Another customization is the camera app, which mirrors a lot of controls now found on Sony's CyberShot camera offerings. The app features a pretty good "intelligent" auto mode that's actually pretty clever at identifying when to use macro or the backlit HDR modes. All but the most picky shutterbugs will be well-served to leave it in the auto mode. Another neat trick of the camera, which comes courtesy of Sony's 13MP Exmor RS sensor, is real-time HDR in video. It's an extremely welcome feature for those outdoor shots where you can't control the light source, or you're dealing with a moving subject. It's something that I'd have enabled all the time.

Keep it Wet

While the Sony Xperia Z can't claim to be the fastest premium Android phone on the market, it stands out with a very classy design in a very unique water-resistant package. If Sony knows how to promote this phone correctly, it will keep a bowl of water nearby for live submersion demos. The feature is unique enough that customers will select it over other phones solely on it alone.

  • jpishgar
    Great article! She's going to get you back when you are least expecting it, you know that Marcus. :P
    Reply
  • JMcEntegart
    11132796 said:
    Great article! She's going to get you back when you are least expecting it, you know that Marcus. :P

    I have to admit, pushing him in the pool felt pretty good, even if he did know it was coming. At least I had the decency to push him in to his face! I was stabbed in the back!
    Reply
  • jpishgar
    If you'd like to coordinate on revenge, I, and the entire moderation team are fully available. ;)
    Reply
  • Marcus Yam
    Please no. :(
    Reply
  • whiteodian
    Fun review and demonstration. Thanks for getting wet to demo. If anything happens to my Nexus 4, I'd consider this for a replacement
    Reply
  • JPNpower
    Oh the war between zee and zed (zet?) continues...
    Reply
  • Marcus Yam
    11133094 said:
    Oh the war between zee and zed (zet?) continues...

    I'm actually Canadian, so I had to make a conscious effort to say "zee" instead of "zed" -- but I justified it because this was a U.S.-specific smartphone locked to T-Mobile, so the American pronunciation is the appropriate one. ;)
    Reply
  • JMcEntegart
    11133235 said:
    11133094 said:
    Oh the war between zee and zed (zet?) continues...

    I'm actually Canadian, so I had to make a conscious effort to say "zee" instead of "zed" -- but I justified it because this was a U.S.-specific smartphone locked to T-Mobile, so the American pronunciation is the appropriate one. ;)

    They were saying 'zed' at CES! In America!
    Reply
  • JPNpower
    Wow... Didn't expect that! Jane are you American?

    Meanwhile here in Japan, people say zetto. Ah, when will our English skills advance!
    Reply
  • JMcEntegart
    11133044 said:
    Fun review and demonstration. Thanks for getting wet to demo. If anything happens to my Nexus 4, I'd consider this for a replacement

    Well, it wasn't by choice, but you are most welcome. I would also consider it as a replacement, though I don't fully understand why. I just want it so I can take photos and video underwater. :??:
    Reply